This week I am in Korea teaching so I found it entirely fitting to take on a Japanese movie while I am here. Well, Korea is not Japan, which the locals will tell me in an instant, but from a western perspective it sets the mood well enough and there are no Korean movies from 53 on the list, so this is the closest thing.
“Ugetsu Monogatari” is a movie by Kenji Mizoguchi, one of the three big directors from Japanese movies golden age period. I have previously reviewed his “Zangiku Monogatari” from 39 and in that connection watched an entire box set of his early films. By 1953 he clearly had developed his style, particularly by making the pace and plot a lot more tight. Of course it helps that the scenes are a lot more transparent to the western eye in “Ugetsu…”, but it helps a lot that he tightened up on his previous tendency to weave.
For “Ugetsu…” Mizoguchi goes further back in time than in his previous films, back to the civil war period in the 16th century. A period that seems to be something of a Japanese favorite, certainly Kurusawa made plenty of movies set in this era. It is a time of unrest and upheaval, a heroic period of the samurai, but heroics is not Mizoguchi’s objective. On the contrary, for Mizoguchi this is a tragic period of destruction, hunger and death and it is on that note that his story plays out.
We meet and follow two small families in a little village ravaged by war. Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) is a potter who is very intent on exploiting the unrest to make a fortune on his pottery. He has a wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), who is worried by this obsession and the sweetest little boy Genichi (Ikio Sawamura). His friend Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) is obsessing about becoming a samurai, which is almost comical since he is a peasant of both mind and manner. His wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) keeps pointing that out, but he is entirely deaf to her.
The two men are so busy pursuing their dreams, one of wealth and life in comfort and the other of status and glory that they entirely set aside their families. There are plenty of worries for the families in the village as it is. Frequent incursions by soldiers sends the villagers fleeing to the hills to avoid rape and being pressed into service. Property is destroyed as the soldiers look for food and valuables so protecting your family seems like the natural first priority. Genjuro however insist on bringing his wares to town and leave his wife and son behind. Tobei comes along on the pretext of helping Genjuro, but with the ulterior motive to pursue his dream of becoming a samurai. Ohama comes along too to keep an eye on her fool of a husband.
Then everything goes wrong. Tobei runs off to become first a soldier and when he luckily kills a famous general he is elevated to samurai. Ohama in her search for her husband gets raped by soldiers and thus enter a sorry career of prostitution. But the most remarkable mishap happens to Genjuro. His pottery is a big success and even attracts the attention of the noble Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyō). Soon he is invited to her palace where she and her nurse fawns on him. First in admiration of his pottery, but it is soon clear that it is him they want. Genjuro is seduced by this life in wealth and comfort and agrees to marry her. Meanwhile Miyagi at home is attacked by soldiers. What happens is at first unclear, but she is certainly suffering and the child is crying.
So, while the men are fulfilling their dreams their women and children are suffering.
Soon everything come crashing down. Tobei finds his wife in a brothel and Genjuro discovers that he has married a long dead ghost and in the process forgotten his family. Both wow to forget their dreams, but the damage is done and you cannot get back what you lost. This is most poignant for Genjuro in one of the most heartbreaking homecoming scenes ever.
I will not spoil the ending but I freely admit that I was crying at the end. For Genjuro, and especially for his little son. Genichi is the sweetest little boy and of similar age to my own son. When he cries “Daddy” (in Japanese) I can hear my own little boy and I get angry with Genjuro for forgetting him. How could he? In the final scenes Genichi is all quiet and that is even worse than crying. It is just heartbreaking.
The morale lesson seems pretty clear. It is about getting your priorities right, about holding up your personal ambitions against your responsibilities. Something that is all too easy to forget. The two men are fools to pursue their ambitions so carelessly, but they also get it back in their face.
But this is also about the victims of ambition. The women here pays the price of their men’s ambition. Directly and indirectly. In post-war Japan that would like have struck a note, both in the aftermath of the war, but also in the total dedication to work and service pervading Japanese society.
My copy of the film was not in the best technical condition, but it does not detract from the overall impression. While it can, as usual, be difficult to always understand and appreciate the cultural elements of East Asian films I thing this one was more accessible than Mizoguchi’s earlier films and that helps a lot. I never felt entirely lost and the motives and concerns were universal enough that I have no problem understanding them. Sometimes in Japanese films I have an issue with the servility of especially women, who seem to sacrifice themselves to their men willingly, but in “Ugetsu Monogatari” there is very little servility in their sacrifices. In fact these women are a lot stronger than I am used to in Japanese film and that honestly makes them more palatable.
I liked this film and more so towards the end. Of the Mizoguchi films I have seen this is clearly the best one.